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What is your function in life?
A region 2 DVD review of SURVIVE STYLE 5+ by Slarek
 
"A whacked-out surrealist comedy from the farthest reaches of
the imagination, coming on like a fantastical version of Pulp
Fiction
if directed by Takashi Miike while tripping on acid."
From the promotional material for Survive Style 5+

 

It's rare that I quote from a film's pre-release publicity unless I'm going to mock it, but I have honestly not come across a better summary of the many bizarre but genuine pleasures of Gen Sekiguchi's extraordinary feature debut than that snippet above. Lest you be misled by the drug trip reference, I should point out that the pacing is usually quite sedate and Sekiguchi resists the machine-gun film-making that his background as a commercials director might suggest. But in every other respect this is as strange and wonderful and inventively off-the-wall a film as you'll see all year. Well, any year, actually.

It's difficult to know quite where to begin with Survive Style 5+, as even the title (and this is the title, not an English translation or creative interpretation) is about ten hops from self-explanatory and provides no clues to just what you are in for. Like the above-mentioned Pulp Fiction, there are multiple, occasionally intersecting storylines, a couple of which are built around criminal activity, but that's where all comparisons end. Survive Style's reality, if you can call it that, is positioned somewhere between the everyday and the fantastic, a version of modern Japan that appears to have bounced through a worm hole and picked up sizeable dollops of 60s America and 70s London en route, as well as a juke box with an international time-warp function.

A not-so quick introduction to the storylines and characters should help you decide if this is for you. The film opens on wealthy but emotionless Aman pondering in voice-over the decision to murder his wife. It's a deed he has already committed and completes by dropping her body in a woodland grave and, after noticing a facial twitch, repeatedly beating her head with a spade. On returning home, however, he finds her sitting at the kitchen table as if nothing has happened. After cooking him an enormous breakfast, which he heartily consumes, she proceeds to beat him senseless with the strength and determination of a sadistic, ninja-fueled Terminator.

Self-absorbed advertising executive Yoko, meanwhile, takes repeated inspiration from everyday observations to create cheesy new commercials in her head, noting the ideas for future reference on a small tape recorder that is her only true companion. When her mind is not on work she contemplates the idea of taking out a contract on her boorish boyfriend, cocksure celebrity hypnotist Aoyama, whose show the cheery but financially strapped Kobayashi family have just procured tickets to see. At the same time three young and inept house-breakers – Tsuda, J and the impossibly goofy Morishita – are touring the neighbourhood in search of amusement and discussing which hand they masturbate with, while on an arriving plane an air hostess is loudly interrogated by an English hit man and his Japanese employer/translator about her true function in life.

And this is just the opening few minutes. As the stories progress and intersect, the bizarro factor gets turned up several notches. At Aoyama's show, the front seated Kobayashi family are selected for the million yen challenge, a chance to get rich if Aoyama fails to hypnotise the family's father Tatsuya. No sooner has Tatsuya been convinced that he's a bird than the English hit man and his translator walk on stage and kill the hypnotist, fulfilling a contract taken out by Yoko. With Aoyama dead and unable to reverse his hypnotic triumph, the distressed Kobayashi family return to their house with their father in permanent bird mode, his body crouched, his arms dangling like wings, a regular 'pok-pok' his only method of communication. It is their house, though, that Tsuda, J and Morishita have raided earlier, and having found nothing of value have hung around to play cards. Surprised by the family's return, Morishita and J hide in the wardrobe, where for the second time that evening J finds himself being lovingly ogled by his young companion. Aman, meanwhile, has managed to re-kill and re-bury his wife, but she returns again, sending him fleeing from the house and into the offices of a certain contract killer...

It is Aman's story that provides the film with its most outrageously trippy scenes, as his wife repeatedly returns from the grave to assault him in increasingly bizarre ways – she flies down from the ceiling when he lays on his bed, breaths fire at him (and lighting his cigarette in the process) after he has attempted to burn her corpse, and following his misguided attempt at dismemberment, she chases him around the house launching her severed limbs at him like bazooka shells. Much of this is genuinely and deliberately hilarious, and the humour is fueled by a succession of oddball characters and traits, which include an executive who interrupts meetings to take trivial calls from his wife, Yoko's hissy snigger and imagined commercials (which are played out in full and are frankly no exaggeration of the Japanese commercial style), the teacher who passes brutally honest judgment on the paintings of her young pupils, and the motorcycle cop who taunts Aman with tales of a ghostly policeman and then laughs hysterically at his own waggish humour. And this is just a sampling.

What really catches you out in the later stages is the layer of thoughtful humanity that creeps into the stories, giving the strangeness real purpose as characters discover inner truths about their own lives, resulting in touchingly affecting scenes that allow them to reflect on the true nature of love and loss and how it affects them and those around them. Nowhere is this better realised than in the reaction of the Kobayashi family to Tatsuya's fate – while his wife and teenage daughter dismay for his and their future, young son Keiichi is not in the least bit fazed by his father's transformation loves him for what he is rather than pining for what was. Not yet set in his ways and opinions, he adapts to change and embraces it, and after his father's abortive attempt to fly lands him flat on his back on the lawn, Keiichi accompanies him to the park to leap off of a shallow bank and roll down the grass with him, his voice-over here providing a wisdom that other characters learn only by more drastic means.

Visually and aurally this is like no other Japanese film I've ever encountered, with the costume and set design alone worthy of study and celebration, the recognisably modern thoroughly infused with an almost hallucinogenic 60s psychedelia that crawls across every wall and into every corner and prop of some of the key interior locations. It even infests the vehicles, from the flowered exterior of Aman's old Buick to the tacky treasure trove that is the interior of the burglars' VW camper (both of them vehicles whose heyday has passed, of course).

This cultural borrowing extends to the soundtrack, with the dialogue intermittently peppered with English words and phrases that characters use as statements of status in their own hierarchy of cool, and a music track littered with lesser-known western rock numbers. There is the sense that some of these have been selected in part because of the language in their lyrics, a slightly obvious attempt at bad boy image creation on the part of Sekiguchi, but they are nonetheless well chosen and integrated into the action. They are even used for occasional comic effect, such as when we catch the clean-cut Kobayashi family headbanging in unison and shouting "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" along with the lyrics of a song blasting out of the car radio. The melding of elements is so complete that despite the language and setting there is little here that is culturally specific to Japan at all, save for Yoko's mineral water commercial, which is structured around a well-known Japanese fantasy creature but will probably play as completely abstract outside of its home turf.

Further enhancing the film's already established (and growing) cult status is a cast that brings together the old, the new and the frankly unexpected. Man of the moment Tadanobu Asano (beard aside, looking exactly as he did in Tsukamoto's Vital, made the same year) is typically enigmatic as Aman, Sonny Chiba shakes off his warrior image to accept silly phone calls from his wife as company executive Kazama, and fellow veteran Ittoku Kishibe (most widely known here for his roles in Takeshi Kitano's Violent Cop and Zatoichi), is hardly playing to type as Tatsuya, spending most of the film clucking and perched like a bird and at one point almost naked in a giant microwave, imagining himself being cooked for the family meal. Kyoko Kizumi, a recording artist of some repute in Japan, plays Yoko with a lovely blend of self-centred contempt and almost childish glee at her own imaginings, but the biggest surprise has to be the casting of Vinnie Jones (yes, you heard) as the English hit man, doing the same old hard nut act as usual but nonetheless just right for a role that is so deliberately out of step with its surroundings.

All in all, Survive Style 5+ is a delirious ride, a wildly imaginative, funny and visually eye-popping experience that gradually reveals a surprising underlying complexity and sense of purpose. My first viewing was with friends after two days of drinking and movie watching and it went down a storm, my second was in sober isolation and it played just as delightfully. The publicity will tell you that it's like nothing you'll have experienced before and for once they're actually right. You just have to see it. Oh, and don't let anyone tell you what happens in the final scene. Suffice to say there isn't a person I've shown it to who hasn't arrived at the credits with a beaming smile on their face.

sound and vision

A film with this level of colour and detail demands a top quality transfer and it gets it, Manga's anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer doing full justice to the film's astonishing production design and vivid use of colour. Contrast and detail impressive throughout, and even the darker scenes show no real evidence of unsightly compression artefacts. A very nice job indeed.

Matching the visuals are three soundtrack options – the Dolby stereo 2.0 track is no slouch, but the 5.1 and DTS tracks are the only way to go, boasting good separation, an excellent dynamic range and a fair amount of LFE punch when required. Of the two, the DTS definitely has the edge.

extra features

The Making-Of Featurette (28:22) appears to have been sourced from a Japanese release and is a must for anyone who enjoyed the film. Pretty much all of the main cast members are interviewed: Ittoku Kishibe talks about playing a bird; Sonny Chiba remarks how quiet Sekiguchi is compared to directors like Fukusaku Kenji; Kyoko Kizumi muses on the challenges of playing a lead role; Hiroshi Abe reveals that the dancing scene was the hardest part of playing Aoyama; Vinnie Jones (speaking in English and subtitled in Japanese) thinks Yoshiyoshi Arakawa will steal the movie playing his translator; and Jai West, Yoshiyuki Morishita and Kanji Tsuda (who play the three burglars) discuss the positive on-set atmosphere. All of this plays in voice-over behind always interesting behind-the-scenes footage, none more surprising than the camera attached to a radio-controlled helicopter for the aerial shots. There's plot revealing stuff in here, so this is one for after the feature.

The Trailer (1:31) gives a fair flavour of the film's style and announces itself as "A Japanese film unlike any other." No arguments here.

There's also Manga Attacks (6:28), a montage of extracts from other Manga titles set to rock tracks.

summary

If it's possible for a film to be both complete barmy and yet thoughtful and smart, strangely retro and yet hip and modern, violently cruel and yet tenderly insightful, then Survive Style 5+ is it. Everyone I‘ve shown it to appears to have loved it. I love it. Whether I can justify it as a great film is uncertain, but it's bloody marvellous outsider cinema, which is all that really counts here, and it's also more inventive, more original and more fun than almost anything I can imagine seeing this year. Manga's DVD showcases the film nicely, and though I could happily have watched another hour of making-of footage, what is included does the job well. This is already one of my favourite releases of the year. Very highly recommended.

Survive Style 5+

Japan 2004
116 mins
director
Gen Sekiguchi
starring
Tadanobu Asano
Shihori Kanjiya
Kyoko Koizumi
Hiroshi Abe
Vinnie Jones
Yumi Asou
Reika Hashimoto
Sonny Chiba
Yoshiyoshi Arakawa

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS surround
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Making-of featurette
Trailer
Manga trailers
distributor
Manga
release date
29 May 2006
review posted
14 May 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews